Long before he started earning a living as a photographer Charlie Phillips had ambitions of becoming a naval architect, then an opera singer. Such dreams became lost in the very journey of migration that he later sought to document with his camera, having arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1956 as a boy of 11.
His collection of images of Notting Hill in the 1960s and ‘70s have now become prized for the way they recorded a unique moment in British history, capturing a time and a place that was in transition as he framed his shots.
He also worked for a number of years in Italy as a paparazzi, supplying the likes of Il Messagaro, Italian Vogue, Stern and Life. In England, though, his work went largely unnoticed and it would be more than 30 years before he secured his first exhibition here, something that continues to be a source of great frustration.
“The arts establishment in this country is very corrupt and elitist,” he declares. “When I tried to sell or exhibit my work they’d tell me ‘it’s not the type of thing we’re looking for’. They weren’t even interested in my Jimi Hendrix pictures.”
We meet in Spitalfields Market where he is taking part in a photo fair. As people gather around his stall, it is clear they are almost intrigued by Charlie himself as they are by his striking black and white images.
Wearing a black trilby over an unruly white mop of hair, this is a man who loves to shoot the breeze, joshing with customers so that they leave with lighter pockets but with a smile on their face.
The story of how he got into photography owes a lot to serendipity, when black American GIs frequented Notting Hill while he was still a schoolboy. “They would come to the area to party and one of them pawned a Kodak camera to my father,” he recalls.
“They also used to leave copies of the Saturday Evening Post lying around and in one of them I saw a photograph by Normal Rockwell called The Runaway. I thought it was amazing and wanted to do something similar.”
He went out on the streets with the camera and began taking photos of friends. “I bought a photographic development kit with money I earned from a paper round and began charging people three pence a print.
Notting Hill at the time, though lively and cosmopolitan, was a massive slum convulsed by the 1958 race riots. Charlie, living with his parents in one room in a boarding house where 16 people shared a single bathroom, longed to run away like the boy in Rockwell’s picture.
But he did not see photography as an escape route. “I had always been fascinated by ships and I was hoping for an apprenticeship in one of the big shipyards like Harland & Woolf. However, I was told instead to apply for a job with London Transport. ”
Charlie also possessed a fine singing voice and his music teacher at school wanted to take it further. “But my parents turned down the offer of extra lessons as they saw singing as a waste of time.”
After a spell in the Merchant Navy, he returned to Notting Hill with his camera. “I was never commissioned to take any photos – I just wanted to document our story in our time, taking pictures of the area I grew up in and of characters I mostly knew.”
The result is a series of images notable for their gritty informality. As a whole, they record a community’s changing identity, from ‘Man in Zoot Suit’ who has just arrived in England, to children playing on demolition sites and drinkers in the ‘Piss House Pub’ having a laugh.
Charlie travelled round Europe, taking in the 1968 student riots in France before settling in Rome. Here he found an agent and began to make a living as a celebrity snapper. “One day you’d see Peter O’Toole, another Gina Lola Brigida and Omar Sharif. I really loved ‘la dolce vita’, and consider Italy to be my artistic home,” says Charlie who, still in love with opera, frequently appeared as an extra at La Scala in Milan.
Despite his success abroad, when returned to Britain, he couldn’t get published. “I was so demoralised. I put my camera away and just stuffed my photographs in boxes under my bed.”
Charlie opened up a restaurant in south London in 1988, which he ran for 11 years, devoting his spare time to building up his shipping memorabilia collection. Then out of the blue in 2003 the Museum of London asked to stage an exhibition of his photography. It proved so successful he has featured in two more major shows there since.
With his work currently being showcased as part of London Street Photography exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, Charlie feels that he has finally won partial recognition. But he seldom takes photos these days and instead can often be seen giving entertaining talks about his photography and life as a rebel with a cause. “I survived through my camera and learned to appreciate life through it as well, but I am out of the rat race now,” he says philosophically. “It is up to the younger generation to continue telling our stories.”
Published: 25 October, 2012, Camden New Journal, http://www.camdennewjournal.com/reviews/features/2012/oct/feature-black-history-month
B/W images © Charlie Phillips/Akehurst Creative Management